Adam Smith and the Free Market

A friend sent this along for comment.

Have Adam Smith and his writings been hijacked by free market economics?

Yes. Smith was deeply suspicious of the business class. When I was teaching, I used to give quotes without attribution for students to comment on, and they regularly treated Smith quotes as being from Marx. Smith knew nothing of capitalism, which barely existed in his day, and would be appalled by the idea of an economy based on a class of workers without property. His insight that people’s selfishness might produce collectively beneficial results (“the invisible hand”) has been taken over by so-called free market economics, and debased into a “greed is good” mantra that is totally antithetical to Smith’s teaching.

Smith complemented The Wealth of Nations with The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which explained that the moral sentiments of trust and compassion were required, among other things, to make a market economy operate at all. This idea has no role in “free market economics,” which imagines that economic actors are soulless egoists. Smith also maintained the first modern version of the labor theory of value, on which the exchange value of a commodity is the labor embodied in it. “Free market” economics rejects this in favor of a subjective theory of value on which price is determined entirely by supply and effective demand, what people with money will pay for it, because labor value is deemed “Marxist,” because Marx developed the most sophisticated version of value theory. A theory without labor value is not Smithian.

The problem here begins with knowing what is meant by “Adam Smith and his writings” and following that what is meant by “free market economics”. And then with making sense of “economic actors are soulless egoists” and “a ‘greed is good’ mantra”. Then beyond all of that, there is this which makes his argument utterly vacuous: “Marx developed the most sophisticated version of value theory” which he rounds us to “a theory without labor value is not Smithian” which means in his hands that only Marxists with their labour theory of value can truly state that they are following in the genuine tradition of Adam Smith.

Adam Smith is best understood via the invisible hand, that an economy is driven by individual decision making through entrepreneurial activity. The quotation is attempting to argue that Karl Marx is the true descendent of Adam Smith. Every aspect of this argument is false, an attempt to appropriate Smith, who advocated free markets, on behalf of Marx, who advocated a centralised tyranny in which markets play no role in directing resources towards their highest valued uses.

2 thoughts on “Adam Smith and the Free Market

  1. Pingback: Adam Smith and the Free Market - The Rabbit Hole

  2. Seems like your friend has a fundamental misunderstanding of the incentives that greed poses! Yes Adam Smith was wary of the motives of businessmen but his main point is that these same motives that we must be wary of (namely greed) are the driving force of increased standards of living for everyone. If a business wants to compete and make the most money in the long run they must make keep making products that consumers like. This is of course assuming that government doesn’t interfere and give some businesses an advantage over other ones. Good blog!

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